Breath is life. No breath, no life! Such a vital entity, but one we are least aware of. Breathing is happening every moment and yet, are you aware of this crucial, intrinsic phenomenon? Furthermore, have you ever wondered why we have two nostrils when one was enough to inhale and exhale? There is a definite reason for this, as we shall see below.
Breath is fundamental not only for the existence of this physical body but it is also intricately linked to our mind. That is why, if you see the breathing of a person who is agitated or excited (say because of anger or sensual arousal), you will notice that his breathing is rapid, unequal and shallow. On the contrary, the breath of a meditator, of a master, is slow, deep and rhythmic. The difference between them is the difference between states of their mind. When the mind is agitated or is turbulent, breathing is irregular and shallow; however, when the mind is calm and integrated, breathing is steady, deep and harmonious. Moreover, if you look at longevity of some animals, it reveals some rather interesting facts. Dogs pant, we all know that. Their average rate of respiration is twenty to thirty-five breaths per minute. And their average life span is between ten and fifteen years. On the other hand, the average life span of a tortoise is well over two hundred years. And the striking feature is in its respiration rate – around four per minute! Thus, the slower one breathes, the longer one lives. No need for any tonics or vitamins or any longevity enhancing wonder drugs – just slow down your breathing naturally and the job is done!
What all this means is that if you want a healthy body, if you want to live long and if you want your mind to be calm and integrated, you need to understand the mechanics and dynamics of breathing and practise accordingly. It is not just oxygen that you inhale, but rather with every breath you are taking in prana, the vital cosmic life force. This vital life force governs your body and mind. Udana, prana, samana, apana and vayana are the five prana working in your body. Apana governs the body parts situated below the umbilicus and exerts control on the process of elimination (urination and defecation). Udana is the controller of the organs and tissues (including brain, eyes, ears, and nose) situated above the base of throat. The chest area, including the lungs and heart, is the field of prana and it governs respiration and the functioning of the heart. Samana controls the mid portion of the torso, the portion that lies between the territories of apana and prana. Vyana, on the other hand, is the reserve energy bank that runs through the entire body. For you to be able to control prana, you first need to understand its functioning - how it works in your body. And, in order to learn the knowhow of controlling your prana, you first need to purify and balance your body. And this is done through the practice of asanas. Gradually as your capacity increases and improves, then you can learn and master the practice of pranayama. This is the basic process.
Usually, people think pranayama is some kind of a breathing exercise, but it is not. ‘Prana’ means cosmic life force and ‘ayama’ means giving a dimension or giving a direction to it. It is a very subtle practice and one needs to be really patient in order to understand it fully. Breath is the physical carrier of prana-thus the importance of breath is huge. Pranayama is not only related to breath and its regulation but is directly concerned with influencing prana. Pranayama entails boosting the vital life force with correct breathing. Our ancient texts say that when inhalation occurs to the count of 16 heartbeats, breath is retained inside for the count of 64 heartbeats and exhalation is done to the count of 32 heartbeats – this is said to be the benchmark for knowing that nadis (subtle channels) have been purified. And it is only then that the guru will instruct the disciple into the higher practices of controlling prana – not before that. For, until this happens, the body will not have the requisite capacity to delve into the deeper practices.
There is a deep relation between mind and the prana. The scriptures say, stop your breath and undoubtedly the mind will stop too. Control of the breath leads to control of the mind, for breath is the horse on which the mind rides. So, if you halt the horse, the rider gets halted automatically.